‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Review: A Vanilla Movie About Kinky Sex
Christian Grey is an unusual guy. He’s the world’s most eligible billionaire bachelor and an enormously powerful businessman. He’s an avid jogger, an exceptional piano player, and a licensed helicopter pilot. He also really likes the color gray. He wears gray suits and ties, drives a gray car to his gray office building (which is called Grey House) under gray Seattle skies, where his assistant dresses in—you guessed it—gray. (For the record, his office chairs are white, but the couches are gray too.) And, oh yeah, he’s into kinky sex, including bondage, spanking, and domination.
Mr Grey’s peculiar proclivities are front and center in ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ the new film adaptation of the insanely popular erotic novel by E.L. James about Christian’s tortured relationship with a young woman named Anastasia Steele. Ana (Dakota Johnson), an English major finishing her senior year of college, meets Christian (Jamie Dornan) when she interviews him on behalf of a sick friend for her school’s newspaper. The interview goes badly but the sparks fly anyway, and so the sexually inexperienced Ana must decide whether to embark on a romance with a man who openly tells her on one of their first dates that he “doesn’t do romance.” On the one hand, he refuses to let her touch him, demands she call him sir, is sometimes frighteningly controlling, requires she sign a lengthy contract, and wants to whip her repeatedly in his sex dungeon. On the other hand, he’s super rich and his abs look like an ice cube tray covered in skin! What’s a girl to do?
According to ‘Fifty Shades,’ her only course of action is to ponder this decision endlessly for over two hours. That’s perhaps the most surprising thing about the movie (at least to this ‘Fifty Shades’ neophyte); almost nothing happens. Most scenes fall into one of two categories: Either a) these very attractive people have sex or b) these very attractive people talk about whether or not they should continue to have sex while also hitting each other with riding crops. A generous reading might suggest the whole film is one elaborate metaphor for the negotiations or compromises inherent to any relationship regardless of the amount of ball gags they entail; another might find a story of empowerment in Ana’s refusal to submit to Christian’s desires. But the movie isn’t particularly interested in any of that. There are a few faint wisps of a story—vague mentions of trouble at Christian’s work, allusions to a dark, mysterious past that turned him into the absurdly handsome dominant he is today—but that’s it. Bit by bit, the extemporaneous characters and subplots fall away, like articles of clothing in an artful, but not particularly explicit, sex scene.
Oh, those sex scenes. There are a fair number of them in ‘Fifty Shades’ but they’re all pretty tame, shot with the same visual language as every Hollywood sex scene; soft lighting, lots of dissolves, discrete close-ups, and precise compositions to frame out or obscure all the most shocking body parts. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s staging and editing feels pretty traditional; you’ll find more edgy stuff in movies Paul Verhoeven shot 25 years ago. Given the depressingly chaste nature of most Hollywood movies, perhaps we should be grateful the scenes are as graphic as they are—although it is curious that there’s vastly more female nudity than male in a film clearly geared toward women.
With few exceptions, the sexiest parts of the movie are the flirtatious conversations between Ana and Christian—like the amusing scene where she schedules a business meeting to negotiate the terms of his sex contract. (Anastasia takes issue with the clause about “anal fisting”.) For all the pre-release hand-wringing, the stars generally have pretty good chemistry, or at least as much as James’ material and the screenplay by Kelly Marcel will allow. Christian is cold and stern by nature, and Dornan plays him as a moody, intense weirdo (Anastasia compares him to a serial killer at one point, which would have made for a much more interesting movie). There’s only so much heat a virgin and a brooding mope can generate, but Dornan and Johnson do the best they can, given the circumstances. Both stars are easy on the eyes but Johnson’s the one who looks like a potential star. She’s charming and very likable in the film’s rare lighter moments, and she really sells Ana’s transformation from milquetoast wallflower to defiant, independent woman.
Will fans of the book like the movie? That’s not for me to say. As a newbie, all I can tell you is what I thought—and what I thought was ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ was a very high-end version of something you might see on late-night cable television; not particularly shocking or special in any way. Christian’s love of gray really fits the film; it’s dull and gloomy despite the best efforts of two willing leads. For a movie about taboo stuff, it feels awfully vanilla. Still, this is easily amongst the seven or eight best Hollywood productions ever made about a woman contemplating whether or not to sign a contract and become a man’s sex slave.